Monday, December 11, 2006

The Continued Cost of Homophobia

This morning news broke of yet another conservative pastor resigning his position after admissions of sexual relationships with other men. Channel Four News out of Denver released the story of Paul Barnes, the latest "outed" pastor to leave church leadership in recent days.

Barnes videotaped a message to his congregation in which he recalled his life-long struggle with his sexuality. "I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy," Barnes, 54, said in the videotaped message. "... I can't tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away." For Barnes, these innate sexual desires for other men were contrary to his reading of the Bible which considers homosexuality an "abomination."

Following close on the heels of Ted Haggard's sex and drug scandal, this public outing is just one more example of the cost of homophobia in our Churches and in our society. Both Haggard and Barnes struggled with their sexuality, not because it was wrong, sinful or "abominable," but rather because their communities of faith convinced them that who they were at their core was flawed and unacceptable to the Church and to God. What violence to the souls of our children are we inflicting through this type of purported moral and religious righteousness?

It was not the sin of homosexuality that drove Haggard to adultery, drug addiction, and deceit. It was not homosexuality that made Barnes cry himself to sleep at night. It was the violence of the conservative Christian Church who taught these men to hate themselves that led to such heartbreak for all involved...for themselves, for their family and friends and for the congregations they led. This is the cost of homophobia and it affects us all.

In a recent edition of Sightings, the Martin Marty Center's e-newsletter, professor of church history at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Dr. Jon Pahl, wrote a piece entitled "Ted Haggard's 'Sin'"in which he explores this cost of homophobia in the context of Augustine's understanding of sin. Just as Augustine believed that "sin arises from a social nexus," he argues Haggard's "sin" was created by his context. It only became a transgression because his conservative Christian environment made it so. The palpable struggle we hear in both men's stories arose from the social and religious context that told them who they were was unacceptable. This was not God's curse, but the curse of an unjust religious community. Pahl writes, "If, say, gay sex were considered good within a committed, loving, and publicly recognized relationship, it would not pose a moral threat."

We must remember that these types of struggles over one's sexuality are not limited to adult men in positions of power. What about the countless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in their congregations? What messages must they be hearing as their pastors are publicly scapegoated and humiliated for just such a desire as they hold secret?

The social and religious shame surrounding non-heterosexual orientations creates an atmosphere of psycho-social oppression that leads to increased risk of suicide among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens. A report by Gary Remafedi in the Journal of American Medical Association reviewed recent studies on suicidality in gay and lesbian youth and discovered that in all ten studies he reviewed researchers found a 20% to 42% rate of suicidality among teens who questioned their sexual orientation, a rate anywhere from 3 to 6 times higher than their heterosexual peers. While there are plenty of conservatives who would like to persuade us that this risk of suicide for gay teens is a myth, the American Psychological Association confirmed that the number one cause of death among teens who question their sexuality is in fact suicide.

The cost of homophobia will continue to weigh heavy on our society until we have the courage to stand for justice, support our children and proclaim the good news of God's Commonwealth in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight persons are known as God's beloved children, each and every one!

"Someday, maybe, there will exist a well-informed, well-considered, and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit." Erik Erikson

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